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The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

Author(s): MacDougall, Robert
Reviewer(s):Hochfelder, David

Published by EH.Net (July 2014)

Robert MacDougall, The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. v + 332 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4569-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David Hochfelder, Department of History, University of Albany, SUNY.

In 1908, G.W.H. Kemper, a prominent resident of Muncie, Indiana, had two telephones. One telephone connected him to the local Bell affiliate, which in turn connected him to a huge network encompassing four million telephones east of the Rocky Mountains. The other telephone, leased from a so-called “Independent” company, connected him to only about 1,500 telephones in and around Muncie. Robert MacDougall wants to understand what this turn-of-the-century competition between the two systems meant for U.S. and Canadian history. Doing so allows MacDougall to explore a key insight knitting together business history and the history of technology — that “the most important fact about electrical communication” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not “the separation of communication and transportation, but the marriage of communication to capital” (p. 62).

This is an excellent book for several reasons. As the title suggests, it is foremost about the political economy of the telephone. As such, it is a model of how to write the history of a technology, particularly a technology as it matures and coalesces around competing visions and organizational structures. Robert MacDougall’s book weaves together corporate strategy, regulation (from municipal to federal levels of the state), the issue of local versus central control, and the scope and influence of consumers’ choices. The heart of MacDougall’s story is the battle between the Bell System and the Independents in the United States and Canada. This battle took place between the expiration of Alexander Graham Bell’s key telephony patents in the mid-1890s and about 1920 when the Bell System accepted state and federal regulation in the U.S. in exchange for a de facto monopoly of the nation’s telephone network.

At one level, this is a story about industrial competition. At a deeper level, it reveals competing visions of an important technology, the social role that it ought to play. MacDougall shows that the Bell System and the Independents envisioned the telephone in far different ways. Bell, especially under Theodore Vail, president of AT&T between 1907 and 1919, sought to build a unified telecommunications network that spanned the United States. Bell Canada espoused a different vision, that the telephone ought to remain an expensive urban medium primarily used for business purposes. Both Bell systems shared the ideology that the telephone industry ought to be controlled by centralized, national corporations. On the other hand, the Independents described the Bell System as a grasping octopus that wanted a stranglehold over the nation’s communications. The Independents offered instead a vision of the telephone as a people’s network that enhanced local ties and preserved community autonomy. In the United States, MacDougall claims that the Independents’ vision for the telephone “descended from a civic understanding of communication that went back to the American Revolution,” that “free and open communications were a basic ingredient of democracy” (p. 5). On a more mundane level, the Independents encouraged social uses of the telephone — like gossiping and banjo-playing — that the Bell System actively discouraged at the time.

This book is also a comparative history of the U.S. and Canada. MacDougall (Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Centre for American Studies at Western University in London, Ontario) is in an excellent position to write such a history. MacDougall focuses on Muncie, Indiana, and Kingston, Ontario — towns that were very similar at the turn of the twentieth century. In Canada, Bell’s fundamental patents were overturned in 1885, about a decade before they expired in the U.S. Thus, the opportunity existed in both countries to set up competing telephone companies. However, national differences were important. In the United States, the Bell System promoted a vision of universal service across the continent. Bell Canada, on the other hand, contented itself with serving primarily urban businessmen. It even neglected Francophone Canada. Another significant difference was the level of government at which regulation occurred. In the U.S., city governments and state public service commissions took the lead in regulating rates, terms of service, and franchise agreements. In Canada, cities had little regulatory oversight over the telephone, leaving it largely up to the federal government.

Finally, this book is a shrewd analysis of how history gets produced. MacDougall notes that as a technology like the telephone becomes commonplace, the history of the choices made by managers and consumers “has a curious way of disappearing from our memories.” As a technology “becomes more familiar, it recedes from our attention” (pp. 3-4). Another factor was at work in obscuring the history of telephony — AT&T’s active shaping of that history. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, MacDougall stresses that if history “has been kind to AT&T,” it is “because AT&T wrote it” (p. 3). AT&T’s shaping of its own history had two effects. It made AT&T’s victory over the Independents seem inevitable and beneficial. Driven by the logic of economies of scale and engineering efficiency, AT&T’s vision of universal service seemed to be a natural and progressive evolution of modern industry. More deeply, AT&T’s history-making was vital “to legitimize the new nation-spanning corporation” and to convince Americans of “the desirability and inevitability of national integration through commerce” (p. 17).

Thanks to AT&T’s shaping of its own history, “it is difficult for us to imagine alternatives” (p. 258) to the trajectory of the telephone industry in both countries. Yet we must acknowledge that alternatives existed. The ultimate victory of the Bell System was not due to inherent technological attributes of the telephone or abstract economic forces, but was politically and socially constructed. Today, MacDougall concludes, we stand at a similar crossroads. Like our forebears a century ago, we “have the opportunity and responsibility” to shape “the future of our communications networks.” As American telecommunication industry lobbyists and federal regulators grapple with the issue of net neutrality, MacDougall’s book shows that “the ways we communicate with one another are, or should be, at the very center of political debate” (p. 267)

David Hochfelder is the author of The Telegraph in America: 1832–1920 (2012) and is presently working on a book on the history of thrift in America. He is also part of a team building a website to reconstruct the 100-acre neighborhood of Albany, NY demolished to build the Empire State Plaza capitol complex.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII